Leading from the top

Jordan's ruler, His Majesty King Abdullah II, has focused on developing the country's ICT sector through a series of initiatives, with impressive results, as Daniel Stanton discovers.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  September 3, 2006

|~|jordankq200.jpg|~|His Majesty King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan.|~|Eight years ago, no one would have thought of Jordan as a centre of ICT excellence. It is an indication of how far and how quickly the Kingdom has developed that it has earned a growing reputation for innovation in technology today. Intaj (the Information Technology Association of Jordan) was formed to promote the needs of the IT industry and find ways to increase both exports and foreign investment.

"Back in 1999, at the height of the internet boom when His Majesty King Abdullah II ascended to the throne he decided to give a lot of focus to the ICT sector," says Sabri Tabbaa, CEO of Intaj.

"At the time the sector was almost non-existent, so he came up with the idea of commissioning the sector stakeholders at the time to come up with a five year strategy for the sector. That’s what REACH is."

The REACH initiative had three main deliverables: the generation of US$550m of revenue/exports, the creation of 30,000 ICT-related jobs and attracting $150m of foreign direct investment (FDI). Although this has not been completely achieved, the industry looks to be well on the way.

"The reason we did not deliver on all of these is that these figures were delivered at the height of the internet boom where everything was really exaggerated," says Tabbaa.
"Nevertheless, the ICT sector in all aspects - revenue, FDI, exports, local revenues - has grown 50% year after year since 2000. Today it represents around 10% of GDP."

Intaj is in regular contact with the government and has managed to improve the business environment for its members. "We've managed to change about 15 laws that are in direct benefit to the sector," he says. "Now we're in the process of doing a five year strategy that will build upon what REACH has achieved. That will be presented to His Majesty around the end of October."

Part of the push to develop the IT sector has involved improving access to technology in schools and universities, hopefully enabling the next generation of Jordanians to equip themselves with the skills they need to be a part of the knowledge economy.

STS Group is involved in the national backbone network, which is based on Cisco technology and links together several of the Kingdom's biggest schools to provide a channel for e-learning services.

Jordan has also taken great strides towards adopting full e-government. STS implemented the Secure Government Network, through which different government departments can communicate and exchange documents securely.

"Another part of e-government was doing a portal through which all the different dealings between business and citizens and the government would go to launch services," says Ramzi Zeine, chairman of STS. "We were part of a consortium that implemented that project as well."

In addition, STS manages the data centre housing all of the government portals. This is seen as something of a breakthrough as outsourcing is still not common in Jordan.

"It houses all the networks for 30+ departments, it houses the portals for all of the government, it houses other applications and the connectivity between them," says Zeine. "It's got a staff of about 25 people and it's growing. As they order more and more services it will keep on growing in terms of equipment and applications.||**|||~|jordanBatoul200.jpg|~|Ajlouni: ITG is uniquely product-based.|~|"We installed all the equipment and then we manage it now as an ongoing long term contract. It's one of a kind in Jordan. So we're very proud of that particular project, I think it's unusual in the region."

STS provides either infrastructure or software to all of the telecoms operators in the country. The telecoms industry has evolved extremely quickly and Jordan was the first Middle East country to licence voice over IP. "Telcos are deregulated completely and therefore you find there are four mobile operators, there are fixed line operators coming in, ISPs, all kinds of sizes and flavours, so it's a booming industry in Jordan," he says.

Where the company has really made a name for itself, however, is through its e-payment gateway product, PayOne, which enables online transactions. STS has also formed a joint venture with Visa Jordan to enable payments for point of sale transactions.

"Our payment gateway connects merchants with banks or credit card operators, or acquirers as they call them," says Zeine. "We do the transaction between you as a merchant and your client coming to your site, and your credit card company or bank. We are proud of that because we know from competition situations that we are the only Arab company that has products of that nature.

"We also do an account-to-account transfer. So, you can purchase something from an online merchant - a service or a product - and then charge it to your bank account directly."

Zeine believes that STS is the largest employer in Jordan's IT industry, and is proud to say that the workforce of 320 is almost entirely Jordanian. He has not experienced any trouble recruiting new talent, thanks in part to the country's healthy education sector.

He believes that initiatives from the Government and His Highness King Abdullah II have been the main reason for the transformation of Jordan's IT sector. "These are things that wouldn't have happened if there wasn't any drive from above," says Zeine.

Talal Al Ali, head of Houston, which distributes and integrates Briton ERP systems in Jordan, says that it is only recently that private enterprise has matured to the point where companies are investing in management software. "It's since last year, 2005, that this market for ERP is existing really, and there are two big companies that are competing with us," he says. "It seems it's a very big opportunity for ERP to be there in Jordan."

The Jordanian government is a large customer, but there is growing demand from industry. "Mainly we sell to the manufacturing sector, consulting sector, trading sector, restaurant sector, automotive trading and workshop, and property management," Al Ali says.

Integrated Technology Group (ITG) is focused on providing IT to the public sector and focuses on e-learning solutions and its own Government Resource Planning (GRP) product.||**|||~|jordanramzi200.jpg|~|Zeine: STS manages the data centre that hosts Jordan’s e-government.|~|Batoul Ajlouni, vice president, business development, ITG, has seen the government increase its focus on improving IT in education. "They're really focusing on schools," she says. "There are a couple of initiatives that were introduced a couple of years ago. One is connecting Jordanians. This is working on connecting all the public schools and universities so they can have access to the internet and more use of ICT.

"Another initiative is the knowledge stations - there are over 120 around Jordan focusing on remote areas. You have centres equipped with computers, with internet and with trainers and people to actually help the community use the facilities whenever they need, whether it's for training or whether it's to use the internet. By building that step by step, every year we're getting more and more people who are aware of technology," she says.

Implementing products like Eduwave, one of its e-learning solutions, in Jordan has helped ITG to demonstrate what it is capable of and draw attention from around the region. "The Ministry of Education here is our first deployment and we have other deployments also in Bahrain, the US and Oman," says Ajlouni.

"But the interesting thing about Jordan was that it was the first nationwide deployment in the world. All the public schools, 1.5 million students and about 3,200 schools are currently connected and working under one complete platform that delivers learning and student information.

"Jordan was the first country in the world to do that nationwide. At the same time it is the largest number of users in a single deployment also worldwide. So Jordan is being recognised in the region for e-learning and for providing e-learning services and products to other countries as well," she says.

Globitel, a developer of voice automation systems, has also seen strong demand for its products from the education sector.

Mazen Al Ali, marketing and communications officer, Globitel, says: "Regarding the marketplace you could say that in the last 10 years there's been really significant demand on telephony solutions. We're not just talking about telecom out here, we're talking about normal companies that have requirements such as voicemail.

"For example, there are an increasing amount of schools in Jordan and they want to provide better services for the parents. They buy systems that tell the parent how their son or daughter is doing in terms of grades and attendance and all these things. It tells them over the telephone."

The company is on the verge of releasing a product that could change the way companies and their customers use telephony.

"We have something that I believe is going to be very big in the near future, speech recognition technology," says Globitel's Al Ali. "I'm not saying voice recognition, I'm saying speech recognition, which means that whatever you say, in whatever accent, in whatever tone of voice, whether you're young or old, woman or man, the system will understand what you're saying and act accordingly."

Globitel is currently deploying an interactive voice response system at Medservice, a medical insurance company in Jordan, which it is hoped will improve efficiency.||**|||~|jordanzagh200.jpg|~|Zaghloul: IdealSoft is close to the market and recognises local needs.|~|"A doctor would enter and just say the diagnosis, say the procedure he entered for the patient and the system will tell him if its okay or not," Al Ali explains.

"Next off, when the patient goes to the pharmacy, the pharmacist just calls the system and says the name of the medicine and the system would say if it's okay to give him the medicine or not, or if the doctor has supplied the system with this information before or not.

"It becomes easier. Firstly it reduces the amount of time that the user spends on the phone. Instead of having him listen to multiple menus over and over again he could just state the request he wants and it will just take him directly there. Currently we support English and Arabic - the engine we use for speech recognition is supplied by Nuance, our partner."

Hanna Zaghloul is general manager of Idealsoft, a software developer that is part of Ideal Group. The company specialises in software solutions for insurance, healthcare and accounting, and has seen demand from countries like Qatar and Lebanon.

"Sometimes we go and train in Saudi Arabia or Dubai, some of our technical engineers go and give support, and we go and sell our software also," says Zaghloul.

"Our market is mainly focused on Jordan but now we have plans to go outside Jordan, because we see a growth in healthcare especially,"he says, adding that the company’s hospital management system has proved particularly popular.

"This is a very well integrated hospital management system focusing on the patient from the time that they get into the hospital to the time that he leaves the hospital," says Zaghloul.

"It covers all the kinds of services that have been provided to the patient, be it giving medication or surgical, or assigning the doctors the nurses, up to the level of dispensing the medicine, in terms of how many tablets at what time, having a proper medical record for the patient."

One of Idealsoft's other products is Al-Muhaseb Al-Mithali, an accountancy package with specific Arabised features.
"There are some features that have to be within the package to make it acceptable to the culture," says Zaghloul.

"If you want to calculate taxation for a guy who's married to three wives you don't find this information in another package, right? So we have to go up to that level. We have to be very close to people and the way they do business, so the software has to be able to adapt to these things," explains Zaghloul.

With strong support for IT from the public sector, and with private sector companies both using and developing top-end IT, Jordan appears to have a strong future as a centre of IT innovation in the Middle East.

However, there are warning signs emerging that Jordan's IT sector could soon become a victim of its own success.
"A lot of companies are moving to Jordan, even though Jordan invented the market, because it's relatively cheap, it's very safe and it's close by. Even Saudi companies are setting up here in Jordan," says STS's Zeine.

"Therefore that puts the pressure on us for our employees not to leave and puts pressure on salaries. So all the marketing of Jordan has this positive effect on current companies but somehow a negative one that we have to deal with."

Intaj's Tabbaa is aware of the possible problems ahead. "I'm not too scared about wages going up because those are market prices for individuals, but what I'm worried about is the supply meeting demand in terms of IT graduates and IT jobs," he says.

"We're producing around 6,000 IT graduates per year. A lot of them get re-exported to some of the Gulf states…but recently, a lot are coming back."||**||Rubicon takes computer animation in Jordan to another dimension|~|jordanrubicon200.jpg|~|Rubicon's new animation series is aiming for success in the East and West.|~|One company in the private sector that is particularly dependent on IT is Rubicon, a Jordanian firm that produces computer animation and is currently developing a children's TV series called 'Ben & Izzy'. The cartoon, which in addition to entertaining also aims to improve understanding between the East and West, uses 3-D animation, so is technically demanding.

"We have a multitude of systems for rendering, storage, backup and workflow," says Rina Abul-Haj, marketing officer, Rubicon. "Our storage is at the level of six terabytes and will double within two months.

"We have put in place a very strong network with several layers of infrastructure, which is essential to the line of business we are in and the types of CGI and animation production that we develop." Rubicon has six people in its IT team, but it may need to expand its operation depending on the success of 'Ben & Izzy', which is being marketed internationally.

"Rubicon's requirements vary from year to year and project to project. We have put together strong workflow, storage and IT solutions that will provide us with much needed efficiency in achieving high quality results," says Abul-Haj.
"Given the ever-changing face of technology and the products on the market, our biggest challenge is to keep up with the pace and complexity of the systems."||**||

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